A Moscow court on Tuesday unexpectedly acquitted a prominent human rights activist of charges he slandered Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman who rules the southern province with the Kremlin's blessing.
The court ruled that Oleg Orlov's allegations that Kadyrov was responsible for the killing of an activist in Chechnya were "hypothetical" and did not constitute slander, a decision that came as a surprise in a country where acquittals are seldom handed down and the courts are primarily a tool to protect the powerful.
Orlov had maintained the charges were aimed at undermining his Memorial human rights group, which has persistently accused Kadyrov of overseeing extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, torture and other violations in his province.
"It's a joyous occasion. I took this case as being political right from the start," Orlov said in a packed courtroom corridor. "I always said that in the eyes of the law we were right."
"I'm glad not that I've been vindicated, but that justice has been done," he said. "It's a very rare thing."
Kadyrov's representative in court, Andrei Krasnenkov, said they would appeal the "unjust" verdict.
"It doesn't matter if the court didn't find malice (in Orlov's words)," Krasnenkov said. "It was slander. It's an unjust decision."
Orlov had said he held Kadyrov responsible for the 2009 killing of his group's representative in Chechnya, Nataliya Estemirova. Estemirova, who drew Kadyrov's ire by campaigning to help victims of torture and abductions and their relatives, was kidnapped outside her house in Chechnya's provincial capital, and found shot along a roadside hours later in July of that year.
The charges had called for a prison sentence of up to three years, but prosecutors said last week they were asking only for a fine.
Orlov told the court last week he felt it was his duty to the memory of Estemirova to tell the truth about Kadyrov's rule.
The 34-year-old Kadyrov, formerly a rebel who fought against the Kremlin, switched sides and was installed as leader of the province by then-President Vladimir Putin in 2007.
With the help of a feared personal security force that has been implicated in much of the disappearances, kidnappings and killings, Kadyrov has imposed tight control over Chechnya and has no tolerance for dissent.